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Open Data and Innovation for Suicide Prevention: #MentalHealthHackathon

The Obama Administration is working with organizations across the United States to promote mental health and prevent suicide.

Our mental and physical health go hand-in-hand. Both are core to who we are as people.

A quick glance at social media or the magazine rack in grocery aisles, however, shows that we focus much more on our physical health. Media and magazine smiles belie the fact that approximately one in five American adults—our friends, colleagues, and loved ones—experience a diagnosable mental health condition like depression or post-traumatic stress at some time during their life. Recovery often occurs with treatment. Yet some Americans still suffer undiagnosed, undertreated, or untreated mental-health challenges that increase their risk for suicide, contributing to the more than 41,000 suicide deaths that occur in the United States each year. As the President pointed out when he proclaimed September 9, 2015 as World Suicide Prevention Day:

All people deserve the opportunity to live healthy, rewarding lives… Suicide prevention is the responsibility of all people. One small act -- the decision to reach out to your neighbor, offer support to a friend, or encourage a veteran in need to seek help -- can make a difference. It can help energize a national conversation and a changing attitude across America. If you are hurting, know this: You are not forgotten. You are never alone. Your country is here for you, and help is available. As we pause to raise awareness of the importance of suicide prevention, let us remember all those we have lost and the loved ones they left behind. As one people, we stand with all who struggle with mental illness, and we continue our work to prevent this heartbreak in our communities.


By working together with open minds, data, medical treatment, and innovations, we can promote mental health and save lives.

What is the Obama Administration doing to promote mental health and prevent suicide?

The Affordable Care Act #GetCovered initiative extends mental-health and substance-abuse benefits to over 60 million Americans. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which the President signed in February 2015, extends benefits and resources for Veterans with post-traumatic stress and other medical challenges. More recently, President Obama declared World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10 and hosted a White House event, Partnerships for Suicide Prevention, on October 9, 2015, as part of Global Suicide Prevention Month and Global Mental Health Day. The event had a mission of “Using data to strengthen mental health awareness and suicide prevention.”

Furthermore, the Obama Administration places high priority on science and data as tools for solving complex challenges, and is committed to using open data and innovation to the priority issues of mental health and suicide prevention.

How can you get involved?

To advance mental health and suicide-prevention efforts, organizations across the United States will host a series of events on Saturday, December 12, in five cities:

  1. Boston, MA: The Department of Veteran Affairs Healthcare System in Jamaica Plain will host a data sprint (a focused set of activities working on data) focused on identifying Veterans at risk for suicides using Federal and academic open data sets. This event is focused on connecting mental-health professionals, Veterans, designers, engineers, technologists, and data scientists to co-design interventions using open data sets to proactively reach Veterans at risk for suicide.
  2. Chicago, IL: The Office of the Mayor of the City of Chicago will host a hackathon for developing and populating a “mental health resource tool” and the processes for keeping such a tool up-to-date in real time, so that mental-health service providers, emergency responders, police officers, and others can readily determine available resources as needed. This hackathon will create Chicago’s very first, real-time, open database providing free information on mental health.
  3. New York, NY: Crisis Text Line will host a hackathon and data sprint to develop an open application programming interface (API) for free software information that summarizes the mandatory reporting laws of abuse, neglect, and harm in all 50 states. These laws vary by geographic region, but are always essential to the efforts of all suicide-prevention services.
  4. San Francisco, CA: Bayes Impact will host a hackathon to build software prototypes and data visualizations using open data to address suicide among Veterans. This event will virtually bring together domain experts from the Boston event with designers, engineers, and data scientists from leading Silicon Valley companies for a cross-country collaborative effort.
  5. Washington, D.C.: The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Transportation, General Services Administration, and civil society will participate in a tech sprint to augment—the home of the Federal government’s open data, and a place where the public can find free data, tools, and resources—by adding new data and enhancing datasets related to suicide in order to stimulate new research, encourage innovative data visualizations, and facilitate the development of web and mobile applications.

Each hackathon/data jam will bring together data scientists, innovators, designers, and next-gen technologists with subject-matter experts in suicide prevention. All are united with a common purpose—to prevent suicide—yet each event will develop its own unique product, tool, or analysis.

Each of these events is free and open to the public (space allowing) so act now to learn more about how you can get involved. You can join in person at one of the above events…or organize your own! Get the word out, share your ideas for suicide prevention, and join the discussion with: #MentalHealthHackathon.


 DJ Patil is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Data Policy and Chief Data Scientist at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Kristen Honey is a Policy Advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.